Each year, the Immigration Project presents an “Immigration Hero” award to recognize important work being done in our network to help the immigrant populations of downstate Illinois. Most recently, we presented the award to Todd and Ana Franks, a former pastor at Maple City Baptist Church in Monmouth, Illinois and his wife. The Franks first became involved with the Immigration Project in 2016, and since then have been real advocates for immigrant rights and the immigrants in their own community. Here, Todd has written TIP’s first-ever guest blog post focusing on his experiences with immigrants in Monmouth, Illinois, and his biblically-based understanding of immigration.
Be The Laborer
By Todd Franks
In December of 2018, a family of six landed at the Peoria International Airport around 10 p.m. Nearly thirty hours before, their journey began at the Kinshasa N’Djili Airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They arrived in Peoria tired, scared, hungry, and overwhelmed. Despite those feelings, they were also hopeful and excited about the opportunities awaiting them in the United States. After the hour-long drive to Monmouth, my friend and I helped the family carry their suitcases into their new, too-small apartment. Though it was now past midnight, Congolese neighbors soon arrived with fufu and other food familiar to the family. I said good night and went home, wondering what they might be thinking and feeling. I asked God to protect them and to show them that He loves them while making them comfortable and helping them know that He is with them no matter where they live.
Over the next few months, I visited their apartment frequently. As I got to know the family, I grew to love them and to be concerned about their needs. The three older children soon enrolled in school and needed much support to get started and to be successful. Navigating the American school system was daunting. On top of just participating in school, the children needed health insurance, school physicals, and vaccinations. Their parents needed jobs and transportation. They needed food. They needed to stay warm. In Kinshasa, the average temperature in January is around 70 degrees. In Monmouth, the average temperature in January is closer to 20 degrees. To say the family was cold is an understatement.
As I worked to meet their physical needs, I began to develop a friendship with the family. At the same time, a group of my friends from church started to get involved in their lives, and we also began to meet spiritual and emotional needs. The family became involved in our church and we prayed, talked, and studied the Bible together. What started as a ride from the airport soon developed into real relationships.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus notices a group of hurting and vulnerable people. Chapter nine, verse thirty-six says: “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd” (KJV). Jesus looks out on a group of people and what he sees – hurt and vulnerability – moves him to compassion. Immigrants are all around us. Whether you live in a small town or a large city, there are likely immigrants in your community. Do you see them? Do you want to see them?
Jesus saw the scattered sheep, but it wasn’t enough for him to just see them; He was moved with compassion for them. It wasn’t enough for him to acknowledge them. It wasn’t even enough for Jesus to talk to them. He was moved with compassion. He was so full of love for a hurting group of people that he had to do something about it. In 1 John, the Bible speaks of compassion that comes from the bowels, or the deepest part of us. Compassion isn’t a fleeting emotion, compassion comes from deep within. When a feeling comes from somewhere this deep, that feeling must be reckoned with. We must respond to it.
Though Jesus is not specifically talking about immigrants in this verse in Matthew, we can use it to inform how we think about and treat immigrants. Just moving to a new country is strenuous. Learning that place’s culture and language is overwhelming. Many immigrants work body-punishing, physical labor jobs that leave them exhausted and allow little time for much else.
Not only are they fainting from exhaustion, but immigrants have literally been scattered abroad. Whatever the reason for coming to the United States, the fact remains that, as a group, they are scattered abroad. Even after the initial culture shock wears off, most immigrants live the rest of their lives “getting used to” life here, and I’m not sure cultural assimilation is something that is ever fully accomplished. This feeling of being scattered remains years after arriving in another country.
Jesus likens the tired, scattered people he sees to sheep. This is not meant to be an insult. I’m not saying that immigrants are helpless creatures whose survival is in constant peril. Immigrants are some of the most resilient, independent, courageous, and hard-working people I know. However, the comparison to sheep is useful. Sheep need help. They need direction. They are vulnerable. I’ve seen immigrants taken advantage of in their workplaces, in their housing situations, at schools, and in places of business all over town. As minorities with less-than-perfect English, immigrants are often subject to mistreatment. They struggle to defend themselves, and this is where we come in.
If you are reading this article, you must have some interest in immigration, and you may even desire to get involved in immigrants’ lives in some way. If you continue to read Matthew 9 through the end of the chapter, Jesus tells his followers to pray for laborers. Those laborers are the men and women who will go out into the world and get involved in the lives of the sheep, and there are so many simple ways to get involved. You can find a local church or organization that is offering English or citizenship classes, or search online for a nonprofit that is meeting the needs of immigrants and volunteer with them. Call the Immigration Project. I’ve never known a group that works with immigrants to have enough workers, so ignore your fears and apprehensions and get involved.
Knowing the state of immigrants is important. What we do with that knowledge is even more important. Sheep needs shepherds. Those shepherds must be active; they cannot shepherd from the comforts of their living rooms. Shepherds live and interact with their sheep daily and they are actively involved with every aspect of their sheep’s lives. We must bridge cultural and linguistic divides and be shepherds to the sheep in our lives. What I’ve come to realize is that caring for sheep isn’t a one-way street. When we care for weary, scattered, and vulnerable people, God allows them to care for us and touch us in ways we never imagined.
It’s been more than a year since that trip to the airport, and the family I first met that night has been through a lot. It’s been a privilege to know them and be a part of milestones in their immigrant journey. As the years pass, I pray they will start to see their immigrant brothers and sisters as sheep in need of a shepherd, and I pray that we, as a community and a nation, will continue to welcome the most vulnerable people from around the world.